One of the most onerous tasks associated with content marketing is finding “the perfect image.” Does it accurately represent the content and intended audience? Is it shocking enough to capture people’s attention? Is it realistic? I don’t know about you, but all of these questions run through my mind when I spend so much time reviewing a library of thousands of images.

From time to time, marketers take creative Group of coworkers working togetherlicense to obtain the “perfect picture.” Take the promotion of Vince Vaughn’s 2015 movie Unfinished Business, for example. Twenty-First Century Fox photoshopped a set of typical, office-related stock images to include the faces of Vaughn and his co-stars. The result? A clever viral campaign that made everyone laugh. However, the movie itself wasn’t exactly a box-office hit.

Although it’s easy to poke fun at them, stock photos are not the enemy – it’s how we use them.

According to Shutterstock, the most-popular stock photography reflects a global society of greater inclusion and cultural understanding. In other words, pasting Vince Vaughn’s handsome face to a stock image is not going to cut it. To grab your customer’s attention, you need realistic and authentic images that resonate with an increasingly diverse society.

Dennis Thomas, senior director of Global Branding Marketing at SAP, agrees with Shutterstock’s observation. “Marketing has definitely changed over the past few years. There is now an enormous emphasis on the customer – addressing where they are in the world and focusing on their needs. This dynamic has shifted how we use corporate imagery and portray people,” he states. “Part of the cause is technology and its impact on every aspect of our lives. For example, enterprise mobility is allowing people to work beyond the confines of an office building. This is forcing us to move away from this staunch, corporate images to fully embrace how our customers really look, work, live, and play.”

Here are five ways stock photos are moving away from cheesy and campy to delivering exactly what marketers want – realistic images that captivate eyeballs and interest.

  1. Ethnic variety is pervasive. As the digital economy enables everyone it touches to establish connections across the globe, marketers are now tasked with relaying their offering’s value to a variety of ethnicities and cultures. Three years ago, a multicultural picture entered Shutterstock’s Top 25 downloads for the first time. Fast-forward to 2015, five such images climbed to the Top 25. The three most popular ethnicities? Middle Eastern, African American, and Asian.
  1. The power of women is front and center. As downloads of women grew by 13% over the past year, so have selections that showcase females assuming the power seat and partaking in activities typically reserved for men. Sure, from time to time, you do see pictures exploiting their beauty and putting them in the background. But increasingly, images are portraying intentions of improved gender equality – even in Turkey, Mexico, Australia, India, the United Kingdom, Brazil, and the United States.
  1. Diversification of sexual and gender orientation is hitting the mainstream. Over the past couple years, many countries have initiated a frank – and sometimes fiery and controversial – debate about the acceptance of LGBT rights. As can be expected, pictures are starting to show the progress of this cultural shift. In fact, nearly 100 countries downloaded at least one image of transgender people this year – with the United States and the United Kingdom taking the lead. “With the increasing prominence the LGBT community is gaining through pop media icons such as Caitlyn Jenner, their lifestyles – which were mostly ignored in the past – are being actively embraced in some countries,” observes Thomas. “Out of that acceptance comes the need to represent people who were once excluded from the mainstream and now included in today’s cultural dialogue.”
  1. Millennials are quickly becoming the preferred audience. Even though babies and children are still popular worldwide, so are Millennials. In fact, marketers purchased three times more images of 20-year-olds than 60-year-olds. Plus, the five fastest-growing markets for downloads of teenagers are all in Asia: Japan, Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Thailand.
  1. Togetherness resonates with audiences. Whether it’s a father playing catch with his son or a team joining hands together, the power of teamwork, family ties, and friendship is clearly visible. Even though our world is becoming increasingly digital, customers of all ages, regions, and lifestyles are craving closer connections with their loved ones and co-workers. And it is through these images that marketers are showing how their offerings deliver on that value.

Whether it’s a corporate image library or visual media, imagery should reflect the values and intentions of that culture. The trick is knowing the culture you are marketing.

Marketers should never presume they know more about the culture than someone else. It requires a coordination of efforts with teams in the headquarters and the region itself. Instead, they should make a broad selection of images that they think will work and send them to people who experience the culture first hand.

“It would be imperialistic to do otherwise,” advises Thomas. “For example, you may think that pictures of the Great Wall of China and boats on the Yangtze River are cheesy and a tourist’s view. But, you may be surprised to learn that these are endeared images that invoke a sense of national pride that may resonate with your brand.”

For more insights into the changing face of marketing, check out Shutterstock’s interactive infographic.

Click on this image to see the Shutterstock infographic
Click on this image to see the Shutterstock infographic “Changing Faces.”

A great image may get someone to click, but good content is what builds affinity with your brand. See How to Create Better Marketing Stories: Find the Heroism.